Friday, April 25, 2008

How history gets written -- ignore the man at the clavier

As my grading chores wind to an end, I will be able to be a little more timely with my blogging, something I consider to be part of my professional duties, actually. At the moment I'm a little oppressed ( gray day and all) by the fact that I've missed a number of good opportunities.

A couple of posts on other blogs in the past week or so have neatly pointed out how tricky the notion of historical knowledge is. Phil Paine, over at, has an essay called Who Wrote Don Giovanni? (under April 16, 2008) on the long-established historical habit ( or perhaps long-established historical fraud) of attributing the creative output of an era to the rulers of that era; credit the Emperor Josef (Mr. "Too Many Notes") with Don Giovanni rather than that obscure Mozart fellow. (Thus my image for this post, from Amadeus.) Couldn't happen, you say? Read what Phil has to say.

I noted one point of disagreement between us here. Some creations do come from monarchs. Phil says:

If a legal code or a proclamation survives from a monarch’s lifetime, historians are quick to see it as evidence of the workings of his mind, even if common sense tells us that it was probably conceived, devised and written by some nameless clerk, while the monarch was snoring and farting, dead drunk, sprawled on the cushions of the harem. Just because the title “Code of Hammurabi” is poked in cuneiform wedges at the top of the clay tablet doesn’t mean that he either wrote it or thunk it. Yet, even if a historian concedes this in a footnote, it is instantly forgotten, and every word written on the subject belies the footnote, and promotes the fantasy.

Phil has forgotten something that I know he knows. The working laws of Babylonia in Hammurabi's time were indeed written by scribes and jurisprudents, and they still survive on their clay tablets, which sometimes record actual court cases. Hammurabi's laws, however, were carved on an 8 foot stone pillar, imported to the mud flats of Mesopotamia at great expense from some distant rocky place, to show how pious he was, and his "laws" seem never had to have been used in any practical context.

Which kind of makes Phil's point.

Over at the American political blog is another revelatory post on the nature historical memory and its malleability. It is an on-video conversation between Rick Perlstein and David Frum about Perlstein's recent book about Richard Nixon and his behavior in office. David Frum of course is a well-known "conservative" pundit (responsible for that destructive phrase "axis of evil," though he has since denied it) who tries to make the argument here that Nixon was nothing extraordinary, that he did what predecessors had done, and was singled out because the rules had changed. Perlstein does not buy that and, more importantly, thinks that from Frum's arguments in many cases are "not-so's," things that are frankly "not so." Whatever you think of this exchange, surely things like this happen all the time, and affect our historical understanding and the historical record that comes down later generations. Is it in fact true that Richard Nixon wrote all the Lennon and McCartney songs?

I want to note here that I am in awe of how Pearlstein uses a combination of text and video to construct his argument, and then shows you material you have seen before to let you test his argument. And of course the entire interview is available at the originating site,


  1. Phil Paine3:46 pm

    Damn that pillar, screwing up my rhetorical device!

    I wasn't that much impressed with Perlstein. He is just as much a dinosaur as Frum. While he scores some debating points on Frum, he lives in the same mental universe. He is caught up in the same old "left/right" nonsense, and obviously hasn't questioned any of the premises that need to be challenged and discarded.

  2. I agree that most medieval kings (the ones I know about) would have had trouble drafting a law-code by themselves, though Alfred the Great may be the exception and certainly his code says in his voice that he did the sorting through old codes deciding what to keep. All the same, they were surrounded by clerics who thought it was important that they understood tricky concepts of theology, and so on. Many of them could at least read some Latin. To suggest that they had no input on the character of their legislation, when their public face was so important to them, even if it was only a setting of themes and a final yea or nay to the draft, seems too much for me. I always think of Athelstan's Grately Code for this sort of thing, where he is made to explain "that the peace has not been kept as I would have wished; and my councillors say that I have borne it too long". I mean, I hear Patrick Wormald et al. telling us that the most important part of law was that issuing it ws kingly, whatever it actually said, but sometimes it was also a response to genuine problems that were being discussed, and there is just no sensible reason to leave the king out of those discussions. At which rate, even if all that is generated is a `proper' rather than `pragmatic' response, the king is presumably involved in its content too. I think the detachment of rulers from their laws can be overstated, basically.

  3. Phil Paine8:29 pm

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  4. Phil Paine3:32 am

    Sure, there were plenty of Kings who had organizational and administrative skills. These are useful, and sometimes essential, to get and keep power. William the Conqueror doubtless worked out the general policy, and perhaps tweaked some of the details of the administrative structure created to conquer, crush, and then exploit England. He was probably a fairly smart guy. Mao was brilliant at getting his rivals to kill each other off, and administrated torture and terror very cleverly. I was not saying that kings were all stupid. Some, like Alfred, may have been quite clever and actually written the books attributed to them. Some show plausible evidence of being smart, cultured or talented in the arts, and of personally participating in the design or building of things.

    What I object to is the routine assumption, without evidence, that things are the direct product of a king's intellect, just because they existed during his reign, when the odds are usually against it. Ancient kings are consistently attributed all sorts of creative achievements in art, science, and engineering on the basis of evidence that would be considered laughable, were any other type of person under scrutiny. Historians' desire to see kings as interesting personalities, and a subconscious belief that kingship is magical, often overcome common-sense cynicism. The result of habitually inflating the intellectual and artistic reputation of kings, on slim evidence or none, leaves people with the vague impression that history is a parade of brilliant and creative kings, interrupted by the occasional disappointment. This is highly improbable. Perhaps Hammurabi did have a direct hand in writing the code. It's not impossible. But historians have no business assuming that he did, considering the probabilities, and are irresponsible if they casually convey the impression he did.

    A citizen of Toronto, today, knows that the billionaire press baron Roy Thomson, was barely literate and had no interest in the arts. Yet the Toronto Symphony plays in Roy Thomson Hall. To many historians, the existence of Roy Thomson Hall, if it was dug up from a middle eastern tel, would be taken as evidence that he was a sophisticated patron of the arts. The existence of the Richard M. Nixon Library and numerous books “written” by him would be taken as sufficient proof that he was a cultured and intellectual leader. The library was conceived and organized by a sycophantic aid, Hugh Hewitt, who also ghostwrote the books.

    Related to this credulity is the unwarrented assumption that an ancient king's activities were the equivalent of a legislature in a modern parliament, trying to devise institutions for the public good. The aim that any policy or legislation enacted by ancient Kings was most likely to have been to enhance their own power and glory, and nothing else. Historians want to imagine them as “statesmen”, royal Thomas Jeffersons pondering how to best serve their nations, no matter how grotesquely improbable that is. They will instinctively shift phrases, emphasis and implications in that direction. It is bad enough that in modern times, all sorts of pathetic pipsqeaks in politics are talked about in hushed tones of respect, but I find it even more ludicrous when the aura of wisdom and culture is cast over Thongor of Lemuria and Bayan of the Hundred Eyes.